When Success Feels Like Failure

Have you fallen into the trap of believing that material success will lead you to feel happy and fulfilled? Unfortunately, for many (if not most), it doesn’t. Read more in this excerpt from From Burned Out to Fired Up by Leslie Godwin.

Book Excerpt
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After following a group of lottery winners, Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman concluded that despite their sudden increase in wealth, the lottery winners’ happiness was no different from that of people struck by traumas, such as blindness or paraplegia. That having more money to spend does not necessarily bring about greater subjective well-being has also been documented on a national scale by David G. Myers. His calculations show that although the adjusted value of after-tax personal income in the United States has more than doubled between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of people describing themselves as “very happy” has remained unchanged at 30 percent.1

Wishing for material success, with complete confidence that it will make your life worthwhile, and then finding out that once you get there you still have the same problems as before, is devastatingly disappointing. And to add insult to injury, you now no longer have your dream of material success to look forward to.

VH1’s Behind the Music proves on most weeknights that if you take ambitious young performers and give them lots of money, groupies and power, they describe their lives as hellish and empty by forty-five minutes past the hour.

When you strive for success and it doesn’t change anything inside you, it can feel like you’ve lost your map of how to get through life. These are some of the most difficult cases of burnout I see in my practice.

But there is hope. Next, I’ll describe some ways to get off the ultimately disappointing track of aspiring to external success, and I’ll give you some tips on how to shift your focus to success on your terms.

Do We Continually Choose a Meaningful Life, or Does It Eventually Become a Habit?

It’s both hard and easy to develop habits that lead to your growth and evolution.

The Hard Part

One of the biggest challenges when embarking on your path will be to do so without the understanding and approval of others, including some friends and acquaintances. It can be very frustrating at times and isn’t at all romantic like many current authors or the media would have you think. (See chapter 8 for more on getting the support you need as you create your own path.)

The Easy Part

Surprisingly, valuing your evolution as a person more than your material success doesn’t have to take a lot of hand wringing or agonizing. In fact, to outsiders it can look pretty boring. Some of the tips that I’ve learned over the years include:

  • Try to stay conscious each day of what matters most to you, for example, a most important value or a top priority. (No, not your top ten priorities!)
  • Detaching from the pull of desires: Pay special attention to how you feel after you get something you desired.
  • Do you lose some of the excitement almost immediately?
  • Does it join the growing list of things you had to have but no longer care much about? [If it’s hard to see this within yourself, can you spot it in your children or others around you? Does your child think that if they get the (fill in the blank with the toy they are fixated on at the moment) that they will never ask for another toy? Of course you can see the bigger picture of how that toy will be the latest on the pile of must-have items that no longer hold their interest.]
  • Notice how much time you spend on distracting yourself with low-priority activities like watching TV, surfing the internet or reading (most) magazines. If you admit that you spend too much time distracting yourself with these activities, you’ll be able to drop them more easily than if you try to use willpower to force the issue. (It’s worth noting that I don’t mean that it’s always a waste of time to play spider solitaire or surf the net. Your energy ebbs and flows throughout the day and a little mindless activity can help you transition to your next project.)
  • Tolerate your anxiety when you can instead of trying to “do something” to make it go away. Anxiety isn’t usually a sign that you’re on the wrong path. More often, it’s a reaction to change or trying something new. By tolerating your anxiety, you prevent your lowest impulses from determining your path.
  • Meditate every day for at least ten minutes. (Start with five minutes if that’s what it takes to establish it as a daily habit.) This clears your mind of your normal, moment-by-moment thinking and anxiety, and makes room for higher level thoughts and drives. (See page 219 for a meditation exercise. There are resources for learning to meditate in the resources for this chapter at the end of the book.)
  • Refer to your journal if you’ve been keeping one. If not, start keeping a journal in which you record brief notes about what captures your interest when you’re reading, watching TV, browsing in a bookstore, etc.
  • And finally, don’t be too quick to ask others what they think you should do. Unless they have a lot of wisdom, don’t settle for their answers.

Success on Your Terms

It may seem natural, even patriotic, to aim for material success. And its opposite—avoiding money issues—is a big problem for many people. But according to those who have reached the heights of their lower-level dreams of money, fame and glamour, external success can feel more like a living hell than the paradise we’ve been promised. When you get to the point that you fully realize that no external reward will permanently change you inside, you can strive for success as you define it.

Journaling Exercise

1. Where does your motivation for the following activities come from? Put a check next to the response that best fits you right now.


  • I’m not working now
  • I work for a paycheck
  • I question my work if I get a negative evaluation from my supervisor
  • I don’t completely respect my supervisor)
  • I question my work if I get a negative evaluation from my supervisor (I really respect my supervisor)
  • I feel a sense of accomplishment from knowing I handled something well that doesn’t depend on whether anyone noticed it or acknowledged me

Creative activities (for example, knitting, painting, gardening, drawing, quilting, etc.):

  • I don’t have time for creative pursuits
  • I do creative activities because I can earn money from them, or because
  • if I didn’t do it, I’d have to pay someone to do it
  • I do creative activities because people enjoy getting my crafts as gifts, or ask me to make them something
  • I do creative activities because I get pleasure from seeing people’s enjoyment from them
  • I do creative activities because it is fulfilling and enjoyable just to do them

2. Now go back and highlight the responses you hope to have five years from now.

How many answers did you both check and highlight, indicating that you are where you want to be already?

How many had quite different answers, indicating that you’re not where you want to be yet?

3. Who do you need validation or approval from?

4. How do you think that needing validation or approval from others is holding you back?

5. When do you enjoy yourself, feel good about your efforts and don’t need external validation or approval? How can you bring that self-assured feeling into those areas where you do need approval?

Cultivate the ability to do things because they are inherently rewarding and enjoyable, not because you get recognition for them. For example, if you’re curious about something, it’s enjoyable to research and learn about that subject. Notice where you are seeking outside validation or approval and try to get in touch with what you get out of the activity.

1. Brickman P., et al. “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (1978), and Myers, David G. The Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Avon, 1993. Quoted in “If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy?” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. American Psychologist 54 (1999).

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